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Posts Tagged ‘idealism’

A tree falls alone in the forest. It makes no sound, because there is no one to hear it. There can be no sound without the ear to hear, no scent without the nose to smell, and no colour without the eye to see. Nor can any of these things be apprehended, without the brain to reflect them as qualities upon the dark mirror of the mind, thereby creating the human experience of the world.

The common-sense story of the world says there is a universe of material objects – galaxies, stars, chairs, tables, teapots, atoms – all of them occupying space, and enduring for a time, in time. We are objects, too, but, unlike teapots, we have senses plugged into a material brain which, together, and by an unknown process, provide us with a mental image of reality. They also produce this thing we call “mind”, which enables us to be self-aware, to be conscious of ourselves.

This is the orthodox “materialist” story, born of the scientific revolution, and the consequent death of all the gods. It makes sense to us, because we all “seem” to share the same world. The world doesn’t “seem” to depend on our presence. The moon is still there when we are not looking at it. The ocean tides still follow a regular, and calculable pattern that is not of our imagining. And when we experience things in the world, our brains show measurable activity. All of this suggests the material world-model, and our separate subjective mental awareness of it, is the correct way of viewing things. It is the right story to tell, and to believe in. It is the right story to tell our children.

But we cannot explain how the material brain gives rise to the quality of feelings aroused by a sunset, or by falling in love, or the pleasure we take in the taste of things, or the scent of a rose, or in the ways music can move us, or even the perception of our favourite colour. These are all qualities, and are unresponsive to mathematical analysis. Mathematics favours the material. Materials have length, mass, time, temperature, current. But there is nothing about them that explains how they create the mental experience of sensed reality. The material universe exists materially, but our experience of it does not.

This, then, is the often told story of the world, but it has a gaping hole in the middle of the plot, because it does not explain the nature of our selves. And those writing this story are now so frustrated by the stubbornly inexplicable nature of “mind” and “consciousness”, they conclude it must be an illusion, that it is generated by an emergent property of the brain. Thus ends our journey into the material realm, with the conclusion that, although we think we exist, actually we do not. We have already eliminated the gods. Now we have eliminated ourselves.

So, a tree falls alone in the forest, it makes no sound. This is confusing, because we mistakenly believe the material world itself possesses qualities like colour, taste and sound – that the greenness of the grass, the scent of the rose, the sweetness of the musical note, are in themselves physical, and “out there”. But they aren’t. That’s not what the material world story is saying at all.

What is the sound of the falling tree? In material terms, it is a wave of pressure. Quantities of pressure are called Pascals. Pascals are Newtons per square meter, which is a mass, multiplied by gravitational acceleration, which is meters per second, per second. Add it all up, and what have we, got? We have a mathematical statement of mass, length and time. What we do not have are timbre, rush or roar. What is “roar”? What is the mass-length-time of a roar, of a rush, of a timbre? Materially, there is no answer. Only the mind knows these things. What we don’t know is how the mind knows them.

What can we say with certainty about the mind? Let’s ask the materialists: It correlates with brain activity, they say. This is reasonable. But by the same reasoning, one would expect the mental experience to increase in proportion to the measured activity. A brain, lit up and buzzing with neuronal action, would be experiencing a greater degree of mental activity than one that is not. Let’s go further and say an inactive brain should give rise to no experience whatsoever. Such a brain would be unconscious, or even dead. However, there is persuasive evidence that the opposite is the case.

A dramatic reduction in recorded brain function correlates with the most profound expansion of the subjective mental experience. Two areas of research confirm this: near death studies, and the experience of psychedelics. In both cases, there is a diminution of the measured brain function, yet a corresponding explosion of subjective mental awareness. This awareness is not chaotic, as in an hallucination, nor is it passive, as in ordinary dreaming. It is lucid, coherent, memorable and profoundly meaningful to the individual. What does this suggest? It’s hard to say for certain, but there is the sense of a door opening.

A normally functioning brain gives rise to our experience of the world, but that’s not all. It also seems to be restricting access to a transcendent experience of being, one in which we seem to exist as a kind of psychical alter, in a realm of pure mind. This would otherwise overwhelm us for our day-to-day purposes, so there is a narrowing of the mental experience, one that is so difficult to escape, we conclude, quite reasonably, the material world is all there is. The transcendent experience however reveals that by far the greater sense of our being exists in a purely non-material sense, transcending the apparently material dimension. Is it then too far a leap to say that, in the normally parsimonious nature of the universe, there may not be a material reality, as we think of it, at all?

I don’t know, the answer to that question, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I sense the story of the world is not yet done, that a fresh and extraordinary chapter is beginning. With luck, it’ll patch up that glaring plot hole, and arrive at the conclusion we might exist after all, just not in the way we’ve come to think we do. It’s a curious concept, a little unsettling, just like the idea that when a tree falls alone in the forest, it makes no sound.

Thanks for listening

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moss1I’m struggling with my reading at the moment – a couple of difficult books on the go. One of them is Erich Neumann’s Origins and History of Consciousness. The other is Bernado Kastrup’s Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics. The Neumann is from 1949, a distillation of Jungian thinking on the nature of the unconscious. The Kastrup is a recently published book that revisits the eighteenth century idealist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

Reading books like this, way beyond my intellect, I accept I’ll only grasp them dimly and in the hope the effort goes some way towards expanding the mind, even a bit. But their greater impact is on the imagination, where even imperfectly grasped imagery can take on a life of its own, dance with images gleaned from elsewhere, and in ways the authors never intended. And there are some startling images in those books.

It’s thus, stumbling through other books, I’ve gleaned bits of metaphysical ideas over the years, and begun assembling a story that’s making sense in layman’s terms – if not in its details, then in its broad generalities. But sometimes I wonder if I’m mistaken, not so much in the truth of these matters – though there is always that of course. It’s more the question of embarking upon such a quest in the first place. Is my head, in fact, pointing in the wrong direction?

When we speak of metaphysics we’re talking about the origins and the inner workings of the universe, also its reflection in the structure and the flow of the human mind. It’s unlikely you’ll get any of this if you’re a materialist, and view the universe as comprising purely material stuff that was big-banged out of nothing. There is another view though – the idealist view – that there is no material, that what we experience in the world is a result of our being conscious within a greater consciousness, a consciousness that sets the stage, and the rules we play by.

If materialism is true, then fair enough, the game is up, life is absurdly pointless, and we’re all doomed. But with idealism, everything is still to play for, and the possibilities worth exploring. I used to be a materialist – as an engineer you more or less have to be – but that stopped making sense for me a while ago. Idealism may be wrong but it’s much more fertile ground for the imagination.

It was once intimated to me that we already know the true nature of things, but we’ve forgotten them as a precondition of being born. At some point though, when we fall asleep for good, we’ll go: “Oh yea, I remember now!” I say it was “intimated”, and the realization did feel very real at the time, but of course I’ve forgotten it all again now. However, the point is, why spend decades of your life banging away at this stuff, when you’ll be gifted it all back in crystal clarity anyway? And if such talk is nonsense – as it may well be – then it doesn’t matter either way, does it? So why the imperative to probe the metaphysical? And if it was so terribly important for us to know – I mean to help us all get along in the world – we’d be born with a greater sense of it than we have, wouldn’t we?

I don’t know. Would we? Do we, actually? Are those haunting aspects of existence, things like love and beauty, not metaphysical intimations? And what about dreams?

Are you still with me?

What I mean is, pursuing the metaphysical can be like scaling a waterfall when it’s in spate. The general flow of being is in the other direction, and perhaps we’d do better to flow with it. Maybe it’s a reaction to the chaos of a world gone mad that we’d even bother trying. Maybe it’s one’s apparent inability to effect much change or understanding of things that we want to escape from the madness. So we seek to resist the flow of life, which seems permanently bound for disaster, and swim back upstream to rest in the formless, as far away from ground zero as we can manage.

But then the chaos we see in the human world is a result of those same intrinsic energies that give vent to life. Left to itself, the natural world will thrive on those energies. It will be red in tooth and claw, and endlessly self consuming, but it will not be self-reflective. It will be ignorant of its own beauty, and that strikes me as a gap worth filling.

Self reflection is an imperfect instrument though, and comes with risks. It can distort how we see the world. Sit that on top of largely simian instincts and you can see how easily we land ourselves in trouble. If we are not to destroy ourselves, we need to wise up! But what can one do if the route to wisdom is so difficult, and only the Neumanns and the Kastrups can attempt an understanding of it, for are they not too few to form a critical mass? Must the rest of us wait for a divine transformation to enlighten us?

Imagine, jealousy, greed, hate and the evil that is lifestyle blogging, all gone in an instant. Imagine, enlightenment as instinctive as the knowledge never to wear brown shoes with blue trousers, enlightenment that we can look back upon our history with equanimity and wonder how there could once ever have been a people so benighted.

There are those in the human development movement who believe such a thing will happen, but this sounds more to me like the second coming of the Christians, a thing I suspect should be interpreted in terms rather less than literal. In other words, I’m not holding my breath. I’m reminded that in the Daoist way of thinking, mankind stands with one foot in the world, the other in the heavens. Some of us are more inclined one way or the other, but the important thing is to find a balance. Which means,…

It’s time to set the Neumann and the Kastrup aside for a bit. Instead, I’m picking up Le Carre’s “Agent running in the field“, and, delight of delights, I am to spend a week, holed up in tier three isolation, with no interruptions, and Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness.”

Let it rain!

[Unless you’ve got plans, then let it shine]

Graeme out.

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materialism is baloney

Bernardo Kastrup’s cheeky title here belies a serious book. It looks at the prevailing world view of materialist philosophy and uses materialism’s own logic to argue that it is self-contradictory, and leads to absurd conclusions. What this means is the view most of us have of the world, a place of “common sense” material stuff, is wrong. It also means none of the problems facing science and society today can be resolved from a materialist perspective. Why? Because the world is not what it seems, and neither are we.

Materialism is a mindset that looks at the mysteries of the universe and assumes everything is ultimately knowable through scientific reasoning. More, it tells us everything can be explained in material terms, even apparently immaterial things like consciousness. But the problems of materialism begin with quantum mechanics. This is the study of the nature of the foundations of what we think of as material stuff, or “matter”. But quantum mechanics also tells us matter cannot be said to exist until it is observed. This is awkward to say the least, and we get around the problem in daily life by politely ignoring it. Clearly though, there’s a gap in our thinking, and it will have to be reckoned with sooner or later.

The alternative view, one that might reconcile these paradoxes and explain the nature of consciousness, is philosophical idealism. Here Kastrup builds on the works of Emanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, and brings them forward into the twenty-first century. I’m not qualified to say whether he’s right or not, only that his views support the direction of my own thinking. His robust reasoning also provides a reassuringly intellectual rigour to what might otherwise, admittedly, seem a very strange way of looking at things.

Although a serious book, I found it engaging and accessible, but you’ll still need your wits about you, because the concepts here are so startling. Through the use of metaphor Kastrup introduces us to the idea of the universe as an infinite “thought”, that the material world is a phenomenon dreamed up by the consciousness of the universe itself. This is not to say the universe is “intelligent” or capable of self reflection, more that it is somehow blindly instinctive in bringing to fruition what we perceive of as life.

Philosophers call such a thing “Transcendental Idealism”, and one cannot delve into that subject without also touching on spiritual matters. So, as well as covering the nature of the universe, the book also looks at the purpose of life. From the more familiar Materialist perspective, life is meaningless but Idealism begs to differ. Indeed, it grants humankind a primary role. It tells us we are the eyes and the ears of a universe waking up and exploring its own nature the only way it can – by enfolding parts of its self into discrete pockets of self-reflective awareness. That’s us. Otherwise, the universe would be like an eye trying to see itself.

When we dream we accept the dream entirely as our reality, and it’s only when we wake we gain sufficient perspective to see the dream for what it was. In the same way, in the dream of the universe, we have no choice but to accept the dream of it as real. Indeed, it is real. It’s just that the nature of that reality is not what we think it is. It also means that ultimately we are the same as whatever we are looking at, because whatever is dreaming “it” into being, is dreaming us too. And equally startling, it means the sense of “I”, looking out through your eyes right now, is the same sense of “I” looking out though mine. The only difference between us, is our life story.

This book will appeal to anyone who finds the high-priests of materialism, and their more fundamentalist dogmas, a little too shrill. It will appeal also to anyone seeking to restore meaning to their lives but who are similarly repelled by religion, as well as finding the otherwise seductive language of the New Age at times somewhat anaemic. I think the world according Bernardo Kastrup is a very interesting one, and well worth exploring. It is both plausible and profoundly positive, building on a rich heritage of idealism, and putting us back at the very centre of a universe driven towards the creation of life.

Although essentially blind and instinctive, its evolutionary drift seems to be towards an awareness of itself, through us. So, while things may not be the way we think they are, what each of us sees and thinks and does, and feels in life,… about life,…

Really matters.

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philosophers

Idealist thinking in a material world

I do not believe all there is to the universe is physical material. I do not believe consciousness is the product of biochemical and electrical processes in the brain, nor that the brain is simply a computer made of meat. That’s the materialist position, the one generally held to be true, at least for simplicity’s sake, but you can only go so far with it.

Materialism explains much of the universe as we see it, at least the universe we perceive through our senses. But it does not explain the universe as it is “in itself”. Indeed, as we probe¬† deeper into the nature of so-called matter, we find matter isn’t what we think it is.

Yet to question materialism goes against orthodoxy. It is to invite the scorn of debunkers and scientistic populists. Thus, scientism replaces religious dogma. And while people are no longer burned at the stake for espousing heretical views, we do have social media for the more metaphorical immolation of character and reputation. Fortunately I am not a career scientist. Nor am I concerned with overturning materialism. I seek only to understand our universe a little better, and my place within it.

The conclusion of centuries of materialistic analysis says there is no supreme being watching over us and life is essentially meaningless. It’s rather a bleak view, but I do have some sympathy with it – particularly the “God” bit. Indeed, it’s a challenge to hold to the idea of a supreme godly being when there is so much suffering in the world. But my own conclusion on that score is either there is no “God” or we have the wrong idea about what “God” is. So while I am repelled by materialists and their bleakness, I have no time for literalist religion either.

Where to then? Well, the only other avenue of enquiry is the philosophy of Idealism. Idealism suggests the universe is a mental phenomenon, something akin to a dream. It’s a controversial claim, first formalized by Plato, then taken up by the seventeenth century British philosopher and theologian George Berkeley, then by Kant, Schopenhauer and the later German Idealists. But after a good run, along with God, it fell very much out of fashion in the twentieth century, and has languished under the burning scorn of materialism ever since.

I’ve been coming back to it slowly through my novels and various life-experiences. Idealism allows the imagination greater leeway in exploring speculative realities, but it also better explains one’s relationship with life – the fact I do not feel like a computer made of meat, that I can be moved to awe in wild places, or by beauty, or poetry, that I can feel love for another human being.

The Lavender and the Rose, The Last Guests of La Maison du Lac, By Fall of Night, and the Inn at the Edge of Light, all these stories take as their point of departure the idea that the world is more than the senses perceive it to be. And if we wish to understand the life we’re living, we do well to approach the mind of the dreamer – at least to the extent that such a thing is possible.

One of the criticisms levelled against idealism is that if the universe is a dream, if we are dreaming our reality, then who are all these other people? Our reality then collapses into a solipsism. This is the extreme egoic viewpoint, that we are the only ones truly alive and aware in the universe, that we are simply imagining everyone else. But nobody said the universe is our “personal” dream. The dreamer dreams it for us, and dreams us, in it.

So, again, who is the dreamer? You can insert God here if you want. Others prefer “Big Mind” or “All that is”. But these are just words after all. Personally, I find the eastern notion of Dao less offensive to my sensibilities, but it’s better not to get too hung up about it.

To describe reality as a dream is, of course, to over-simplify it, and to provide ample ammunition for materialists to barge in and heap scorn upon us. But if the dream contains all the rules of an apparently solid, material reality, all the hurt and the pain and the fragility, as well as the joys and the beauty, then there is no reason to dismiss the idea as nonsensical.

Just as the personal dream convinces us of its reality, because we have no reference beyond it to conclude otherwise, so the big dream convinces us of a material, spatial, time bound universe, and our existence within it. It also answers some puzzles like how big and how old the universe is, though the answers are shocking, and we need to be sitting down before we contemplate them.

In the idealist view, concepts of time and space come as part of our toolkit for perceiving the universe of appearances, the same as with our senses and intuitions. They allow us to relate objects in space relative to one another, and place one event in time relative to another. But they do not define the universe as it is in itself. In the mind of the dreamer of reality, there is no time, no space. Therefore, the universe is not located anywhere. Time does not pass, nor was time ever begun. No “thing” actually exists, nor has it ever.

It’s the only way anything can be said to exist at all.

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southport pier

To become conscious of one’s self is in part to journey along a path towards the realisation of one’s absolute invisibility. More than this it is also to realise everyone we meet along the way is invisible as well.

No one can ever truly know another person. No one else can ever know what we feel, or think. All we can know of each other is what we express through the inadequate means of the physical body, through what we say, what we write, how we move. But how good are we at expressing ourselves? How good are we at interpreting expression? In a sense, we are all prisoners, isolated, and tapping on the walls of our being, that others might know of our presence. But for all of our efforts, the greater part of our selves, the vital part, remains invisible.

So, when we meet others in physical reality we always do so on terms that are mutually delusional. I think I know you, and you think you know me, but we are only projecting our own prejudice and predispositions onto one another, so seeing in each other instead murky reflections of our own shadows, which are by turns attractive and repulsive. As relationships develop with our more favoured companions we might feel justified in saying we come to know them well, but again it’s only their habitual modes of expression we are familiar with. We will never know what they are thinking or feeling, nor they us.

It’s a necessary revelation, this realisation of one’s invisibility, also a good starting point, the assumption what we say, or what we’re hearing could be easily misinterpreted even to the inverse of what is actually intended. It should make us more cautious, more searching, more conscious of our selves and the effects we might be having on others. It might also make us more forgiving.

There are two sides to reality. There is what we perceive and express in the physical world, and then there’s what we feel or imagine in the inner world, the world of the psyche. We each of us sit at the boundary of an inner and an outer world, and neither reality can be excluded from any true description of the totality of human experience.

But the senses have the effect of drawing us out towards embracing more and more of physical reality, until we identify with it completely. We dismiss the inner world, the world of imagination and dreams, as meaningless, indeed as being “unreal”, since it is not “physical”. Thus we close off the door to inner reality, imprison ourselves in the physical and we suffer accordingly, because the physical world can never fulfil a need for completion that is entirely psychological in origin. Mankind’s suffering in the physical world knows no bounds and is increasingly suggestive of our eventual annihilation. Worse, there are many physical scientists today who express the belief consciousness itself is an illusion, that although we might cherish the sense of our own being, in fact we do not exist at all, and never have. How can we not despair? Not only are we trapped in the prison of our minds and invisible to others, we are led to believe there is no one out there either, not even our selves.

But we do exist. We are invisible, yes, but we still have a profound effect on the physical world. Everything that was ever built, or made began as an idea, and ideas are born already fully formed as insights in the inner world. In order to give birth to them we must express them into physical reality through drawing or writing or construction. But without the idea occurring in the first place, nothing would be built or drawn or written down, and the world would be entirely as nature made before mankind ever came along and began to shape it. And ideas are the stuff of minds, the stuff of that realm we would dismiss as unreal.

The danger for all of us then is the same as it has always been. It is to forget we are invisible and to believe the form we express in physical reality is the sum total of who we really are, similarly that all forms are more real than the ideas from which they were born, that happiness can come only in the endless pursuit of material form, that the solution to all our problems can only come from the discovery of yet one more “thing” in physical reality, and that thing will have a form and a name ready made.

It wont.

Cultivating an awareness of the inner world is important if we want to live a better life, and see a better society, one that more closely reflects our potential in positive ways. The realisation we are all invisible is a useful milestone. But we do not need to withdraw from life into monkish caves in order to ponder its implications, only realise it is the quality of our ideas that determines the richness or otherwise of life. The best of us is realised as ideas that rise from the deeper layers of the psyche, the worst from the regurgitated scum of a shallower kind of thinking, a thinking that expresses itself as an habitual will to power. But I think we’re starting to know that side of our selves a little better now. I think we are all becoming more conscious of our selves.

Only when we realise how invisible we are do we begin to see each other, and the world more clearly.

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